Version tested: Wii
Sometimes it's comforting when you know exactly what to expect from a videogame. Mario Sports Mix has all the Mario sports hallmarks: Mushroom, Flower and Star trophies, infuriating random items, courts that make absolutely no sense (basketball on a sandy beach? Ice hockey on the lawn of Princess Peach's castle?), a wide cast of Nintendo characters with superficially differing abilities and special moves... The woiks. It's also got a tiny touch of Square Enix in the form of unlockable characters like Moogle and Cactaur, which you can steadfastly ignore if you're still a bit upset with Square over splitting with Nintendo in the nineties.
There are four sports – Basketball, Hockey, Volleyball and Dodgeball – each with their own separate tournament structures. Hockey is the star of the show, primarily because it's almost as fast and violent as the actual sport. Playing in teams of two or three, the aim is simple – smack the coin-shaped puck past the Shy Guy goalie and into the back of the goal with as much force as possible.
You can charge up flying power-shots or rely on speed and accuracy instead, but you don't have to think about anything very hard. Despite the potential for feinting, dodging and combo moves, you'll do just fine pressing A to pass and flicking the remote to shoot. If you get into a fight over the puck, you have to shake the remote vigorously to batter the opposition into submission.
Basketball puts in a strong showing too. It's a pared-down version of Square Enix's last Nintendo-licensed game, Mario Hoops 3-on-3. The controls are similar to hockey – A to pass or steal the ball, remote-waggling to shoot – but it's a lot more about timing, especially in the three-point zone. It's also a much more interesting game in defence, making you protect your basket from dunks and long-range shots with leaps and spin attacks. Lay-ups, dodges and combo alley-oops make it the most complicated of the selection, but as with Hockey you can usually rely on the basics.
Volleyball and Dodgeball are pretty weak. A hit in Dodgeball doesn't send a player out immediately – instead, everyone has an energy bar, which removes all that high-speed tension from the game. The ball itself soars through the air at such a leisurely pace when thrown it that it's actually quite difficult to get hit at all. Volleyball is sluggish, too – two sets of 15 points take an age to complete, and it's the only one of the four sports where AI opponents seem able to outright cheat you out of a point.
There are a few random elements common to all four. Collecting coins adds points to your score if you bank them by shooting a goal/hoop/smash, which can turn a match around in moments if you let the other team amass a moderate fortune. Yellow item boxes on the floor of the court yield the usual shells, mushrooms and other Mario staple items, but they're mercifully sparse.
The various courts are full of gimmicks ranging from cute to monstrously irritating. A Luigi's Mansion-flavoured one turns the lights out every minute or so and sends in ghosts to mess up the game, a racecourse-themed hockey court puts traffic cones in front of the goal rather than a keeper, a Princess Peach volleyball court blocks areas of the net with fountains. It's all part of the Mario sports "thing", of course; the obstacles only seldom get in the way of victory.
Volleyball relies rather too heavily on shaking the Wii controller – that's how you perform literally every move – but the other three sports have the right balance of button and motion actions. Slamming the controller down to dunk a basketball or flicking it to shoot a goal are particularly satisfying. You can play all of them with the Wii remote held sideways, but especially in Hockey, you'll appreciate the nunchuck analogue stick's extra precision over the remote's D-pad.
Of all the other Mario sports titles, this is perhaps most similar to Mario Smash Football – Basketball and Hockey are both short-form, aggressive team-games with a heavy emphasis on hammering the goal and smacking opponents around until they give up the ball rather than defensive strategy or planning. The sports are deceptively robust, but the game is hell bent on convincing you otherwise by stripping all the challenge out of the single-player tournaments.
In true Mario Sports tradition, you have to sit through the fist-eatingly boring Mushroom Cup before you're allowed to have any fun, during which game elements like items and coins are introduced at an insultingly slow pace and the AI opposition stands practically on the spot, holding on to the ball without doing anything for 10 seconds at a time. Only in the Flower Cup and beyond do the games begin to show their true colours.
With three Cups per sport, the single-player is certainly substantial, but incredibly stupid AI opponents don't do it justice. There's a lot of nuance to the controls, particularly in Baseball, but there's no need to use anything but the most basic techniques against such dim, predictable opposition. Team-mates are also astonishingly hapless, standing stock still in front of the goal after you pass them the puck. You can switch between players with the C-button, but because they position themselves so badly when you're not in control and the opposition is so useless, you can easily win games without ever switching right up until the last stages of the Star Cup.
Mario Sports Mix's real longevity lies in the multiplayer. Against human opponents, feinting and dodging become crucial techniques, and you don't have to put up with the stupidity of AI team-mates. All the sports are playable in two-versus-two teams, or as a team of two or three versus the computer. I didn't get to try out the online multiplayer pre-release, but tournament play with a human team-mate was about six times as fun as it was on my own with a couple of braindead Yoshis.
Though it was prudent of Square-Enix to realise that none of these games could sustain an entire Mario sports title in itself, that also tells you all you need to know about them – they're simple, fast and fun, but pretty insubstantial. Ridiculously dim AI and sluggish tournament pacing make the single-player a chore for the first hour or two, and though it wakes up a bit after that, it's the multiplayer that really justifies its existence. With four people, two-on-two, Basketball and Hockey are as good as any Mario sport since Tennis or Strikers.
As a whole package, this isn't quite up to the standard you'd hope for from Mario Sports, but it certainly doesn't damage the series' reputation.
7 / 10